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Gary Delp of Heritage Timber points out a log wall from the log cabin the 1880s house at 503 E. Front St. was built around. It was discovered when paneling was torn off a stud wall. 

She shot the Missoula County sheriff.

That pretty much ended the married life of Mary Angeline Tebeau McWhirk Drouillard for the time being, since she was married to the guy.

This was in 1878, what Bob Oaks calls a “very busy and tragic year” in Mary’s life, not to mention in a history of 503 E. Front St. that becomes more fascinating by the day.

Oaks is executive director of North Missoula Community Development Corp., which recently accepted the dilapidated Front Street property as a donation. NMCDC plans to deconstruct the two houses that became one apartment complex and replace it with seven low-income community trust townhouses.

NMCDC will hold a public hearing on the idea Wednesday at 7 p.m. at the Burns Street Community Center, 1500 Burns St.

Meanwhile, Oaks and City Council member Heidi West are digging up the history of the place, with an assist from historians such as Ellen Baumler of the Montana Historical Society in Helena.

What seems certain is that Daniel Heyfron, a one-time sheriff but not the one Mary Angeline killed, built a grand house on this site in 1882. He and wife Josephine raised their family and lived here well into the 1930s.

That house is still there, encompassing two walls of a much older log cabin that could date back to the days of Missoula Mills in the mid-1860s.

“The value as it exists is not that great,” Oaks said Friday. “The value is in the stories involved in it, and the stories we will learn more about during deconstruction.”

***

Mary Angeline Tebeau’s saga is one he didn’t expect.

“It could be the seed for a pretty amazing historic fiction novel,” said Oaks.

She was the second woman to spend time in the territorial prison, sent there in 1879 for murdering Sheriff Moses Droulliard, her husband of three months. That prompted Baumler to research her past for the 2008 book, “Dark Spaces: Montana’s Historic Penitentiary at Deer Lodge.”

Mary apparently lived for at least a few years at 503 E. Front after marrying her first husband, Cyrus McWhirk, in 1870. McWhirk was in western Montana by 1862, when he worked for John Owen at Fort Owen near Stevensville. 

A family biographer said Cyrus’ brother, William McWhirk, arrived in Missoula from Walla Walla, Washington, in 1866 and lived here until 1877, when he moved to the Bitterroot and became a successful merchant in Corvallis.

The McWhirk brothers were among Missoula’s first subdividers, and the area of town west of Rattlesnake Creek along the Clark Fork River is known as the McWhirk Addition.

The brothers are also generally credited with earning Missoula its nickname, the “Garden City,” for the gardens and orchards they established between the river and the mill race that famously powered the town’s first mills. That flume ran behind 503 E. Front and is still visible.

***

Cyrus McWhirk comes off as an abusive man. Though some dates don’t match up, Mary married him when she was about 15, according to Baumler.

They had two daughters, Clara in 1872 and Georgia in 1875.

Citing cruelty, Mary left Cyrus after Clara was born and took the baby to Walla Walla, where her parents had moved from Missoula. He filed for divorce in 1873, but the couple apparently reconciled. In 1875, she filed for divorce, and the next spring pressed assault charges against Cyrus. He was fined $100. The divorce ultimately came through, perhaps in that fateful year of 1878. Mary was awarded $500 and court fees of $50, Baumler wrote.

Cyrus died, destitute, in 1881 in Fort Benton.

West transcribed the various divorce filings found in the Missoula County records department. In 1873, McWhirk claimed his wife had “a violent and cruel passion and temper and does not possess the proper rigor and affection for her said child ...”

He also said he always treated her with “kindness and affection” and provided her with “a good house and with all the necessaries and comforts of life.”

Missoula’s first physician, Dr. John Buker, testified in the second divorce proceedings in 1875 that McWhirk failed to provide Mary food or heat during the pregnancy of her second child. Mary painted Cyrus as an abusive drunk who beat her and forced her to move out of the house with their children.

“I’m thinking how many women like that were out here in those days?” Oaks said. “It’s really a pretty tragic story – women on the frontier.”

***

Mary then married Dr. Buker in early 1878, but divorced him within a couple of months. She was in her early to mid-20s. He was 63.

On Sept. 4 of that same year she married Drouillard in Frenchtown. She was six months pregnant with her third child.

The newlyweds shared living quarters at the county jail until, in December, Mary gave birth to Albert Droulliard. Ten days later she shot and killed the sheriff with a pistol, claiming in her defense that he, too, was abusive. She was jailed for almost a year before a typically all-male jury found her guilty of murder. Mary was sentenced to 15 years in prison. 

She walked through the prison gate on Dec. 4, 1879, joining Felicita Sanchez, the first woman sentenced to the penitentiary in Montana Territory. Sanchez was also convicted of murdering a man in Missoula.

Mary was six months pregnant again, with a child who by all indications was conceived when she was jailed in Missoula. The father remains unknown. That daughter was born the following spring in the Deer Lodge hospital and immediately put up for adoption. She died three months later.

Baumler wrote that when Mary returned to her cell she concealed vials of opium and chloral hydrate that were prescribed after she gave birth. She attempted to kill herself, but prison officials “discovered her condition” and saved her life, for which she later thanked them.

To the relief of those same officials, Mary Droulliard was pardoned by Gov. Benjamin Potts in August 1882. Baumler, West and Oaks have tried but failed to find out what became of her after that. Her oldest daughter, Clara, had died while her mother was in prison.

"Reunited with Georgia and Albert, Mary may have gone to see her parents at Walla Walla," Baumler speculated.

***

The walls of the McWhirk cabin will come down in deconstruction. Saving them “wouldn’t fit what we’re doing,” said Oaks.

“What could be done, as they do at other places, is they could be dismantled, numbered and put together somewhere else, like Fort Missoula," he said. "It would be interesting to have it just as an example of what the construction style was.”

These weren’t just rough logs with chinking, as is evidenced in photos of the old Worden store at Hellgate that was built before the mill in Missoula was established. “It’s a very tight construction,” Oaks said. “This is a pretty nice finished product, and it has a really high ceiling, not what you’d picture in a log cabin.”

Archaeologists, architects and heritage carpenters have taken an interest in 503 E. Front, but they’re searching for answers, too.

As the walls come down, Oaks said, “we should be able to understand what that log cabin was, peel up the floor, figure out how tall it was, what it was used for. We can look at the hearth that was covered up in there and maybe date the ashes.”

With luck and continued detective work, stories of old Missoula – even unsettling ones like those of Mary Angeline Tebeau McWhirk Drouillard – will come pouring out.

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Mineral County, veterans issues

Outlying communities, transportation, history and general assignment reporter at the Missoulian